Infidelity is one of the most common causes of marriage breakdown. Deciding whether to stay together or separate is a difficult and confronting experience, and there are many support services available to help you. As part of that process, you should also consider obtaining family law advice about your rights and entitlements.

Is it common for spouses to have affairs?

As it is a very personal and sensitive issue, it is unlikely there will ever be a way of accurately recording the proportion of people who have affairs. Statistics from other countries that attempt to capture that information, or studies using self-report methods, report wildly varying outcomes.

What is apparent from my observation is that, if an affair is defined as having at least one sexual experience with a person who is not your partner at the time, then affairs are very common during long term relationships or marriages.

What is the impact of an affair?

It can of course be devastating to find out that your partner is having an affair. We all react differently to bad news; some clients report feeling guilty for letting their relationship deteriorate to a point where their partner strayed, while some vent fire and fury against a person they previously adored. Either reaction, or something in between, is perfectly normal, provided it does not escalate to violent behaviour.

People who have an affair and decide they don’t want to continue in the relationship often act with indifference, or become highly defensive, when confronted by their spouse. If you are the person who had the affair, you should expect an emotional response from your spouse. It is an extremely traumatic event for them. I find that clients who are more empathetic, or who at least do not start a fight when confronted about their behaviour, tend to stay on better terms with their (perhaps ex) spouse in the future.

Regardless of either party’s reaction, if you have children, do not involve them in any disputes with your spouse. I frequently deal with parents who tell their children about the other parent’s behaviour; as if they hope the children will side with them. When challenged about this, I’m often told ‘the children have a right to know! They can make their own minds up!’ The parent usually says that after they have already inundated the children with everything bad they suspect the other parent has ever done, in addition to an emotional outpouring of their own distress. Children, particularly those of a younger age, do not react well to conflict, regardless of which parent is to blame. It is not worth your child’s mental health to try to point-score.

Where can you go for help?

If you recently found out your partner had an affair and you are considering whether to remain in the relationship, avoid making instant, rash decisions you may later regret. For example, clients will occasionally report sending mass texts to friends and family detailing the other spouse’s behaviour in an act of anger. Remember, there can be criminal consequences if you go too far.

I strongly recommend you speak with an experienced counsellor or psychologist. They are trained to help people deal with traumatic events and can provide a helpful, impartial perspective. Your spouse need not know about those appointments so, if you wish to keep them private, do not pay using a joint credit card if your spouse may see the transaction on the bank statement.

Your general practitioner may be able to recommend a counsellor or psychologist for you. Alternatively, you can contact the Australian Psychological Society or the Australian Counselling Association for a referral.

If you are significantly distressed and need urgent assistance, you should contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you decide to separate, you may like to read an article I wrote here about how to negotiate with a former spouse. Justine Woods has also written here about strategies to minimise conflict between separated spouses.

Do you need family law advice?

If you are considering separating, it is always useful to know what your parenting rights are, and what you would be likely to receive in a property settlement.

If a spouse is having an affair, in my experience, they will often seek family law advice to get a ‘heads up’ about what their entitlements will be and to take any steps to protect their interests before announcing the relationship is over.

Regardless of whether you are the spouse having the affair or not, your lawyer may recommend you take certain steps to protect your interests. For example:

  • taking photocopies of financial documents while you still live under the one roof, so you do not need to request these if you separate;
  • withdrawing funds from a joint bank account to ensure you have sufficient funds to meet your reasonable living expenses; and
  • obtaining an ouster order allowing you to remain living in the former matrimonial home with the children and requiring your spouse to find alternate accommodation.